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E.T., Phone San Antonio: Spurs Gamble By Winning Big With Little from Tim Duncan

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E.T., Phone San Antonio: Spurs Gamble By Winning Big With Little from Tim Duncan
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Manu Ginobili cannot describe or identify what he saw in the L.A. skies Dec. 1.

Maybe it was his team's offense going up in spectacular smoke, with an explosion to follow. Maybe perverse and inexplicable things happen at 30,000 feet when the Los Angeles Clippers win. Maybe Ginobili did indeed witness a UFO.

Cue the "Twilight Zone" theme. In the previous week, he had to wonder if aliens had abducted the real San Antonio Spurs and replaced them with a team that can spank opponents despite minimal contributions from Tim Duncan.

It made sense, given how the Spurs' blistering 20-3 start has unfolded, that Duncan recorded his 707th win in 1,000 tries Sunday afternoon with a pedestrian 4-of-10 performance. Few players in sports history have won at a better clip in fewer attempts. Duncan notched his third regular season triple-double a few weeks ago in Golden State and unloaded on the defenseless Phoenix Suns frontline for 25 points in early November.

Several throwback efforts cannot hide what headlines the best opening record in franchise history: less Duncan. A lot less.

When the Spurs began the 2009-10 season 0-3 sans Ginobili, and soon after Tony Parker, head coach Gregg Popovich ordered his healthy players to feed Duncan like Kobayashi at a hot dog eating competition. He had spent that summer relentlessly drilling mid-range jumpers in the practice facility, preparing to give his knees and upper body temporary breaks from the interior pounding they have taken since he first graced an NBA court in 1997.

Popovich hoped an emphasis on Duncan's deft touch from 15-20 feet would spare his star some unnecessary wear and tear. All the coach could do, though, when a Parker ankle sprain threatened to send San Antonio spiraling to the lottery, was lean on Duncan like someone with poor posture would their favorite cabinet. A heavy dose of "The Big Fundamental" was the only recourse for a roster ill-prepared to survive the loss of its two best athletes and playmakers for an extended period.

Ginobili returned that December and Parker followed. George Hill, though, was too spotty to merit a consistent role or minutes. Roger Mason Jr. sank four game-winners during that campaign, but his fatal flaws became apparent as playoff-caliber foes began to make defensive adjustments on him fit for springtime. Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen had nothing left to give in crunch-time slogs, and Matt Bonner could not approximate Robert Horry.

The Spurs could not impersonate a title contender without Herculean efforts from Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. Keeping that trio healthy and on the court proved impossible and cost San Antonio dearly when the streaky Dallas Mavericks warmed up just in time for an embarrassing, emphatic send-off for the silver and black empire. The Mavs had done nothing earlier in the season to deserve or portend the five-game triumph, but that did not matter when firepower outweighed sense and karma.

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle opted to allow Parker and Duncan to rack up all the points they desired in isolation situations. With Ginobili sidelined, no one else could drain contested shots. If it was not wide open, it was not going in the basket.

R.C. Buford and Popovich convinced Peter Holt to spend big that summer, and the staggering results, better late than never, suggest Duncan will give his coach what he has wanted for years in elephantine amounts: new one-liners. Popovich yearned to rest Duncan in ways his squad's recent records and schedules never allowed.

Is there a more extra-terrestrial sight for everyone involved with the Spurs, from players to broadcasters to fans to basketball operations staff, than San Antonio turning a two-point game against a quality opponent after three periods into a 16-point victory with Duncan playing zero fourth-quarter minutes?

It happened Friday versus the Atlanta Hawks, and the box score proves it, as does the game tape. Ginobili logged a few minutes in the final frame before Popovich told him to also park his butt on the bench while Tony Parker, Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, Matt Bonner and George Hill, among others, grounded and flummoxed the Hawks.

Jefferson detonated from both corners, and his three-point barrage did to Atlanta what Duncan would have to most opponents hanging around in previous season. Duncan's totals in three contests against New Orleans, Golden State and Atlanta31 points and 25 reboundswere once marks he could approach given 40 minutes of daylight.

When he played three fourth-quarter minutes Sunday afternoon, reaching his latest milestone, he bucked a recent trend, one Popovich should hope continues through the early Spring. He made just 4-of-10 shots against the Portland Trail Blazers' athletic frontline, but San Antonio clubbed Portland 95-78 in the finest, stingiest defensive performance of a record-breaking start.

Duncan, once the anchor the Spurs could not win without, should phone in another season-ticket order as a joke. Popovich, at times, seems determined as ever to make his star watch more basketball than Spur fans do. The demanding coach no longer needs to ride his three biggest horses to the point of exhaustion. Duncan, 34, has spotted San Antonio plenty of early leads.

He knows the finish counts much more, and Popovich's judicious use of the 13-year veteran might help decide who wins the next Larry O'Brien trophy. A rested Duncan coupled with the most explosive scoring unit Popovich has ever coached makes for an intriguing title recipe.

Every day the Spurs move further from a Duncan-centric offense, though they gamble. Duncan's high-40s accuracy from the field ranks as a career low. His point and rebounding totals have dipped enough that he will miss his first ever All-Star game if fans fail to vote him as a starter.

Ginobili and Parker will deservedly sprint up and down the Staples Center floor that Sunday evening alongside Kobe Bryant and more of the exhibition's regular invitees. Ginobili has assumed a substantial leadership role, while Parker has played some of the best all-around ball of his career.

Still, Popovich knows the diesel-powered offense will need Duncan's regular unleaded gasoline in April and May. Duncan was built for the postseason grind, and he will not want to miss eight-of-nine shots on his birthday again. He has fought and produced since 1997 as if the end was staring him in the face. This time, it is. No facade. No need to pretend.

The boy who cried wolf might finally meet a tooth-gnashing carnivore with an appetite the size of the Alamodome. The Spurs appear ready to re-join the 60-win club and challenge the L.A. Lakers for the West's top seed. When the team gets to April, can Duncan just turn on those afterburners all this bench duty should afford? Or will rhythm, or a lack thereof, mean more than his age?

The Lakers and Mavericks have shadowed the Spurs with a caveat: Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are giving their squads superior output plus a troublesome spike in minutes played. What will matter more in the playoffs: Gasol and Nowitzki shaking potential cumbersome fatigue, or Duncan trying to recapture his old, familiar role with plenty of nap time but not much groove to show for it?

The Spurs' home-heavy December slate should yield a continued conga line of double-digit poundings. San Antonio still leads the NBA in point differential, and that does not figure to change anytime soon.

The Lakers, Mavericks and Denver Nuggets will provide the toughest tests, but oddsmakers will favor the Spurs in most of the remaining jousts by a bunch. Consider these facts, too: the Blazers and the Utah Jazz swept San Antonio last season. The Spurs beat both by double figures already.

Count a victory in Charlotte and a win over the Chicago Bulls as additional ones that proved elusive in the 2009-2010 campaign. A Wednesday "W" would push San Antonio 18 games above .500, matching their previous finish in April.

Those bathing in the gushing euphoria assume Duncan will ride the elevator to his customary level of postseason production. The Spurs can secure a fifth banner if his averages equal what he accomplished in the 2010 playoffs. If the "up" button malfunctions, though, Ginobili will rub his eyes like never before.

An alien spacecraft may have appeared after a Clippers win, but Duncan's lesser role in the previous month was the real sight to behold. The Spurs hope E.T. does more than phone home in April. They need him to scram, too.

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